Tag Archives: Bangkok

Lessons learned while traveling alone

I’ve been here three days but I’m only now feeling as if my brain is starting to catch up to my body. My first day here I broke one of the nice wine glasses. I also set out to make a ginger lemon slice and didn’t notice until I was packing things away that I’d used cinnamon instead of ground ginger.

Yeah, well, you win some and you lose some. Especially after 24 hour trips that are not entirely free of drama.

On Monday there were some teary moments before leaving the house for the airport at 6:30am. At one point Zulu trotted over to me looking very concerned. I thought he was coming to extend that famous “doggy sympathy when owners are upset” that you hear so much about. Instead, he grabbed the tissue out of my hand and scampered away to eat it. Lose.

At Luang Prabang airport they checked my second bag for free. Win. They could not, however, check my baggage all the way to Australia, so I had to clear customs and pick it up in Bangkok. Lose.

I arrived in Bangkok airport three hours before the Air Asia counter opened for my flight. This meant I spent the first three hours of that six-hour layover loitering in the crowded, noisy, main terminal. Lose.

At the check in counter the woman immediately asked me if I was pregnant. When I said I was she asked how many weeks. When I answered honestly (28) she asked me for my letter of medical clearance. As I didn’t have one, this was potentially a very big lose. But the lady checking me in just wrote down 27 weeks on the waiver I had to sign and cautioned me not to admit that I was over 27 weeks or they wouldn’t let me on the plane without a doctor’s letter. Win.

This form I had to sign six copies of not only released Air Asia from any liability regarding any health issues I suffered during the trip, but also stated that I promised to “reimburse Air Asia upon demand” for any in-transit expenses incurred as the result of my pregnancy. As I reached Australia without having to have the plane diverted to Singapore or anywhere else (and thereby incurring a debt that staggers the mind to contemplate) I guess you could say this one was a win.

It turns out, however, that we had been misinformed as to the price of excess baggage on Air Asia. Sadly misinformed. Instead of costing us the anticipated $50.00, I had to pay $300.00 for the extra 10kg I was carrying with me (and this was reduced from $390 after I begged and pleaded and pointed out that I had bought a premium ticket). Epic lose.

During my second layover of the trip, in Kuala Lumpur, I booted up my ancient laptop to take advantage of the free wireless and it lasted about 3 min 30 seconds before dying. None of the plugs I was carrying fit in Malaysia. Lose.

Not nearly as many people were eager to help me lift and carry as I’d expected. I did ask for help a couple of times, but somewhere in among six on-tarmac loadings and unloadings I pulled a muscle in my back and the pain only got worse as the trip progressed. Lose.

Things got better from there on out. On the long overnight flight from KL to the Gold Coast I travelled in Air Asia’s premium section, and the seat went sort of flat. So my feet were up off the floor most of the night and I had much more space than the poor souls packed in the back. Win.

Mum and Dad were there to pick me up in the Gold Coast. Win.

We had ricotta pancakes in Bangalow on the way home. Win.

And here. Well, the view here thrills my soul. Epic win. I can’t think of a nicer place to come back to as my second home away from home. Now, if only Mike and that tissue-stealing little mongrel were here too…

Over to you. Two critical lessons I learned during this trip were: (1) Check and double check (with the airline themselves) extra baggage charges; and (2) Don’t assume that just because you are visibly pregnant people will help you lift your hand luggage (so to pack only what you can comfortably lift yourself).

What lessons have you learned while travelling solo? 

Happy New Year from Laos

Songkran Thailand (Source: http://www.journeymart.com)

So I sort of promised more from Bangkok this week, but I’ve failed on that front. I woke up at 6am in Bangkok this morning and was back in Laos by 11:30am, only to find that the streets are as crazy here as they were in Thailand.

The last three days have marked the traditional New Year festivals in both Thailand (Songkran) and Laos (Pii Mai Lao)

I’d heard that the locals celebrated New Years in Thailand and Laos by turning their towns and cities into a big three-day water fight, but before this week I couldn’t really understood how that worked. Unless you happened to get really unlucky, I thought, surely you could venture out outside without getting that wet? Surely it’s not like half the population has nothing to do for three days straight except stand around and assault others with water? Right?

Wrong. So wrong. On several fronts. Let me count the ways.

  1. It’s not like it’s half the population staking out the roads and looking to drench others. More like 80% I’d say.
  2. They’re not just standing around staking out the roads from the pavements. Gangs of over-excited teenagers, adults, and even a few grandpas, also ride around town in the back of pickup trucks armed with garbage cans of water they use to bail and toss, and water guns that squirt a huge stream of water more than fifty feet. When they see anyone walking or riding past and looking somewhat dry, a great cry of, “get them!” arises. And then they do. Even if you’re obviously pregnant.
  3. Not all the water being tossed is just water. Some of it’s been dyed pink. Or black. That’s particularly great when you’re dumb enough to venture out in white linen pants, as I was last night in Bangkok.
  4. Water is not all that’s freely bestowed. People also run around toting bowls of thick, white rice paste. As you walk past they reach out and smear this paste on your face, leaving behind big white streaks. Or they throw a cloud of rice flour onto you right after they throw water.

All this is quite fun when you’re watching it from the safety of your front porch or even the first time you get drenched. It’s a lot less fun three days later when you’re being drenched for the tenth time and you’re on your way out to dinner wearing conference attire.

I’d thought things might be a bit quieter up here in Luang Prabang than in Bangkok, but the reverse seems to be true. Everyone is out and about. Mike says he’s never seen so many people out giving morning alms to the monks as he did this morning, and as we drove in from the airport to meet friends for lunch, the streets were thronged. Hundreds of kids were crawling all over the one fountain in town – their parents standing around grilling meats, drinking beer, and tossing the odd bucket of water whenever the mood took them. Luang Prabang is just one giant, wet party that puts our university shenanigans (seemingly so many years ago now) to shame.

As we walked out of the café after lunch two little girls ran up to me with full containers and big grins on their faces. Fresh from the airport I was still wearing my conference attire, but it was close to a hundred degrees here today so I just stood still and let them soak me. It felt wonderful. I guess the eleventh time is the charm when it comes to getting into the party spirit (or getting so hot you’re just desperate to be hosed down).

Siok dee pii mai! Happy New Year from Laos!

Crowds out on the street in Luang Prabang 2011

Songkram, Thailand (Source: http://www.chiangmai-vacations.com)

A tale of two puppies

Mike should have known better, really.

I was so happy at the prospect of finally getting a puppy that the thought of two puppies had never entered my mind. Honestly.

Then, while we were on the way to the airport last Monday to be medivaced to Bangkok, Mike mentioned that he’d called the puppy lady and told her we wouldn’t be able to make our scheduled appointment at lunchtime that day, after all.

It has turned out to be more difficult to find a puppy in Laos than we’d bargained for. Once we’d settled the fact that we definitely not getting the imported Samoyed (a question that was only really resolved in my mind when we went back to the little store and she was gone) we started scouting around.

Then Mike’s colleagues got wind of the fact that we were looking for a puppy and, hospitality being what it is here, decided to take care of this for us.

“What do you mean Makan has found us a puppy?” I asked, when Mike told me what was going on.

“Well, I’m not exactly sure,” Mike said. “You know how indirect everything is here. The word on the street is that Makan has ‘ordered one’ but I can’t get anyone to tell me when we might expect this puppy to show up at our house, or whether these puppies have even been born yet.”

“But what if we don’t like this puppy?” I asked.

Mike shrugged. “Unless we find another puppy quickly we will have exactly zero choice in the matter.”

We really didn’t want Makan spending his hard-earned money to buy us a puppy, so we set to hunting down puppies with new will. We asked the owner of the little grocery store we go to, and the people in the hardware store. But we didn’t strike gold until we asked the German guy who sells the only decent ice cream in town.

Ice cream man was very confused to be asked about “mah noy” (little dogs) while we were paying our bill, but when he finally realized what we were after he obligingly dug out the phone number of the German butcher. The German butcher, he told us, had little dogs.

The German butcher and his wife, Soumontha, did indeed have little dogs. We told Soumontha that we’d come round on Monday lunchtime to see them.

Except, last Monday at lunchtime found us in a car on the way to the airport to catch a flight that would ferry us to hospital in Thailand. Damn staph.

“Maybe we should get a puppy in Bangkok,” I suggested, trying to think of ways to redeem this trip and get my puppy fix. “A yellow lab, maybe. Or a husky.”

“Soumontha said she’d keep one for us,” Mike said. “Or two. She asked how many we wanted.”

Have you ever had one of those moments when your perspective and vision for life shifts with all the brilliant immediacy of a lightening strike? That was how the possibility of two puppies arrived in my mind – in a single, mesmerizing, instant.

“What did you tell her?” I asked, pretending casual.

“I told her that it depended on how cute my wife thought they were,” Mike said.

Really?” I said.

“Stop!” Mike said, with all the sudden fear of someone who’s just realized that they have handled a Pandora’s box far too casually. “I was joking. We do not need two dogs.”

“How do you feel?” I asked, glancing down at the swollen legs that were jammed into his shoes.

Stop!” Mike said, ignoring my solicitous diversion.

“What???” I asked.

“I can see you thinking.”

“Once upon a time you loved it when I thought,” I said.

“Yes,” Mike parried. “And then we got married.”

I didn’t pester him too much about two puppies last week. It’s hard to muster up the steely willpower necessary to press an argument with someone dressed in green pajamas who has an IV decorating the back of their hand. So I bought him chocolate covered ice cream bars from the gift shop downstairs and bided my time.

That time came yesterday, when we finally got to go see Soumontha’s puppies. There are fifteen of them, five weeks old now, and they are a squirming tangle of adorable. I sat down on the ground and let them crawl all over me and wondered how we were ever going to be able to pick one in ten minutes flat.

As it turned out, there were only two left unallocated from the litter that we wanted – a little girl and a little boy – tiny, tawny, balls of fluff with black noses.

We were leaning towards the little boy, but then we noticed that he whimpered a lot and started to wonder whether he was chronically noisy, or anxious… or brain damaged. Then we started leaning towards the little girl.

“Perhaps we could take them both,” I suggested, smiling up at Mike and Soumontha.

“I told you,” Mike said to Soumontha.

Mike and I talked this over again last night as we walked down to an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong.

“They could be buddies for each other,” I said. “When we have to go out they won’t be lonely – they can play nicely with each other while we’re gone. And during the day when I am busy they can curl up together like tiny, contented, bundles of love. They will be happier with a friend.”

“That is a beautiful vision indeed,” Mike said. “But I don’t think it works like that, exactly. When puppies are together all they want to do is play, and I think it’s far more likely that they’ll wind each other up and get into all sorts of mischief. Do you really want to be trying to write in the same room as two bored puppies and all sorts of things they should not be chewing on?”

“Huh,” I said, my beautiful vision dying a small death.

After we got home from dinner I put this to an informal poll and it seems that, as usual, the global facebook audience agrees with Mike.

“Uh oh!” warned a good friend from California, Danielle. “I know it’s tempting, but don’t get two that are siblings! They maintain a pack mentality and it makes them unbearably hard to housetrain and domesticate! They act like little wild wolves when you have two from same litter together.”

“Little wild wolves” piques my curiosity, I must admit – after all, how much trouble can two puppies be? But I suspect that my curiosity will be trumped by pragmatism-plus-spouse, and I am slowly resigning myself to being a one-puppy household.

Of course, we are going again on Sunday to visit the whole furry mob of them – a visit that is likely to take a pair of bellows to the dying embers of that beautiful vision of canine comradeship…

I’ll keep you posted.

We, the beneficiaries of admin costs, thank you

I am sitting in Bangkok airport in a recliner. Yes, recliner – Bangkok airport has a bank of them right near gate C2, surrounded by pots of orchids.

Mike is stretched out next to me, dozing. It’s 10:30 in the morning and we’re both yawning our heads off. We’ve done an awful lot of sitting around this week, so I feel a bit silly about being quite so tired. But, then again, even the best hospitals are not entirely relaxing places to hang out.

We may not have gotten quite as much sleep as we’d like this week, but we did get good medical care. Mike has another week’s worth of antibiotic tablets to take three times daily, but so far everything points to him being well mended – for which we are very grateful.

I read an article this week by Nicholas Kristof called The D.I.Y Foreign Aid Revolution. It was an interesting, challenging piece primarily focused on the stories of three women who are passionately committed to making a difference in the lives of the poor.

“It’s not only presidents and United Nations officials who chip away at global challenges,” Kristof writes. “Passionate individuals with great ideas can do the same, especially in the age of the Internet and social media.”

Driven by “some combustible mix of indignation and vision” these women have accomplished extraordinary things.

They have also sacrificed greatly. One has depleted her life savings and is now close to homeless. Another one of these young women in rural Nepal recently had an infected tooth extracted by pliers…with no anesthetic.

This last story stands in stark contrast to our experience this week. For me, it’s enormously reassuring to have seen our emergency medical insurance company in action.

When Mike rang them in Singapore last Monday to talk to the on-call doctor, they could easily have told us to monitor the situation and wait it out for another 24 to 48 hours, but they didn’t.

Within hours they had transferred Mike’s case to their Bangkok branch and organized flights for both of us. On the other end they had pre-arranged someone to meet us at the gate, shepherd us through customs, and lead us straight to a waiting taxi. They had also contacted the hospital in advance, lined up a doctor to see us upon admission, and put us in a single room with a couch. They will cover the tab for this week’s little adventure completely. The only thing they won’t pay for is my air ticket and on-ground expenses.

This is one of the hidden benefits of working for a large NGO rather than on your own. Yes, the bureaucracy of large organizations can be frustrating at times. But the flip side of that coin, in this case, was that when something went wrong there was a safety net in place – a safety net paid for by funds that would normally be labeled “admin”.

“Administrative costs” is a bit of a hot-button topic for humanitarian organizations. NGOs love to be able to tell people they keep admin costs low. However, a hell-for-leather drive to keep admin costs low can mean more than just the vast majority of your dollar is going straight to building wells (or whatever you’ve donated to). It can mean that the organization is not investing in their staff and building their skills. It can mean that they’re not providing staff with emergency medical coverage, or resources (such as laptops in decent working order) that they need to do their work well and efficiently. It can mean that they’re not paying their staff well enough to stay long – which means high turnover and all that costs in terms of organizational knowledge, program continuity, and the recruitment and training of new staff.

So by all means look at the portion of a charity’s money that goes to admin costs when you donate, but don’t let it be your only yardstick. It is not a yardstick that does a complex situation justice. Mike’s office, for example, has a relatively high ratio of admin costs associated with it. This is partly due to the fact that (in accordance with government policy) program staff are not allowed to visit the project sites without being accompanied by government officials. Also according to government policy, the organization must pay these government officials a per diem for their time.

The relatively higher admin costs of this office are also partly due to Mike himself being here. In many other countries, a local would fill Mike’s position. But in this “strong state” it can be virtually impossible for the local staff to stand up to the demands of their government counterparts – demands that local staff hand over the money for the projects to the government, or work in non-target communities, or focus only on building infrastructure (such as schools) and neglect commensurate capacity building (such as teacher training). Part of Mike’s role here is to help shield these local staff by saying no to government when no needs to be said – to buffer local nationals enough to enable them to get on and do their vital work.

Here in Bangkok we must quit these recliners now – they are calling boarding. On the other end of this flight, Mike will head straight to the office from the airport and they will drop me at the house along the way. After a week on the couch with a small blanket I’m particularly looking forward to our bed, and I’m glad we’re going “home” to Laos today. But I must admit that I’m also very glad to know that we have good medical insurance (and, failing that, some savings of our own) and that I will not necessarily have to face a local dentist with a pair of pliers anytime soon.